One of the themes of the second season of Discovery is fixing what was broken—or at least off-kilter—in the first season. Some of these are carried a bit too far. Honestly, I don’t need Pike not liking holographic communicators to “justify” why they didn’t have them in “The Cage” in 1964. (I also don’t need them to explain why the Enterprise used printouts in that failed pilot episode.)
But with this episode, they address one of the biggest fuckups of season one, the death of Hugh Culber in “Despite Yourself.”
First of all, full disclosure, this episode was written by Kirsten Beyer, who is an old friend of your humble reviewer.
Second of all, let’s address the elephant that has been taking up a lot of space in the room since “Despite Yourself” aired thirteen months ago. The solution to how Culber has been brought back from the dead is, on the one hand, pretty crazy; but on the other hand, it’s no weirder than, say, having his memories infused into a corpse that was reanimated by a science project gone awry. Seriously, if you have an issue with Culber being resurrected by Stamets’s connection to the mycelial network, but you’re totally okay with the equally ridiculous events of The Search for Spock, then I question your sincerity.
And it’s all wrapped in a story that is pure Star Trek. The Culber that we saw in “Vaulting Ambition” wasn’t just a mycelial hallucination, it was a copy of Culber that Stamets somehow created in the network.
But, as we’ve seen through “May,” the jahSepp who bonded with Tilly, the network is a thriving ecosystem. According to May, there’s a monster that has been destroying the network, and she kidnapped Tilly at the end of “An Obol for Charon” in order to enlist Tilly’s assistance to destroy this monster.
Meanwhile, back on Discovery, they catch up to Spock’s shuttle only to find that the only occupant is Georgiou. Section 31 is also looking for Spock, and they caught up to the shuttle only to find he was long gone.
The execution of this plotline was beautifully handled by writer Beyer, director David Barrett, and especially Anson Mount, Sonequa Martin-Green, Alan van Sprang, and Michelle Yeoh. The tension between Burnham and Georgiou is magnificently played by Martin-Green, as we see the anger, the betrayal, and the guilt all etched on Burnham’s pores. Georgiou calls her on the fact that it was Burnham who dragged the ex-emperor’s ass across universes back in “The Past is Prologue,” so if Georgiou is now a person of authority within Starfleet’s black ops organization, Burnham has nobody to blame but herself. But now Georgiou is looking for Spock, and that probably isn’t a good thing for her brother.
On top of that, Georgiou’s true identity is classified, and Burnham isn’t allowed to discuss it with Pike. Pike, though, knows something’s up, as he went to the Academy with Georgiou, and she seems way off. (“The war changed her,” is Burnham’s bland response, later promising to tell Pike everything at an appropriate time. Pike urges her not to make him chase her for it.) Pike and Leland, Georgiou’s CO, last seen in “Point of Light,” is also an old friend of Pike’s, and their friendship is strained by their current duties. Pike works in the light, Leland in the shadows.
This comes to a head when Discovery goes almost literally half-in-half-out of the mycelial network to rescue Tilly. When the ship is in danger of falling in, it turns out that the S31 ship has been shadowing them all along, and has made absolutely no move to help Discovery until they’re specifically asked for help. The livid outrage from Mount is palpable and dangerous, and it’s clear he’s very much not happy with S31 playing games with his crew’s lives. His “We’ll talk about that later—at length” to Leland is intense. Mount is simply killing it this season, transforming Pike from the sullen man of action Jeffrey Hunter gave us into a charming, charismatic, compassionate captain.
Unfortunately, while the execution is, as I said, beautifully done—culminating in a great conversation among Leland, Pike, and Admiral Cornwell (always good to see Jayne Brook again) as the admiral tells the pair to work together to find Spock—the actual structure is problematic. When Section 31 was introduced in Deep Space Nine’s “Inquisition,” an episode that takes place a good century-plus after this episode, it was established as being so sooper-seekrit that nobody had ever heard of it. That’s very much at odds with S31 being a known black-ops division of Starfleet, complete with combadges and ships with holographic camouflage 117 years prior.
Besides the continuity issue is that Section 31 is a really terrible idea, a cheap writer’s crutch, enabling people to do dirty-tricks plots rather than actually do stories that follow Star Trek‘s optimistic mission statement.
It’s especially hilarious to see S31 in an episode that highlights Trek’s trademark compassion. Just like the conclusion of the Grover-narrated children’s book The Monster at the End of This Book gives us the revelation that Grover himself is the titular monster, we find out that the monster May is so concerned about is Culber—who is, in fact, also in danger in the network, forced to use matter from the network to armor himself. Both Culber and the jahSepp have been damaging each other, and the solution is to bring Culber back with them. It takes some technobabble to make it work, of course, but it does.
What’s great about that plot is that it’s a classic Trek tale of a monster not being a monster, of things not being the worst-case scenario that we assume, and the solution coming from a place of compassion. May kidnapped Tilly because the jahSepp need her help. Discovery did the batshit-crazy thing of acting as a doorstop holding open the way to the network (Pike’s apt analogy) because they needed to rescue Tilly. And May, Tilly, Burnham, and Stamets work together to find a way to bring Culber home so everyone can live.
This whole episode is really a triumph of execution over idea. The entire notion of S31 as we see it on Discovery is terrible, but it works here. Georgiou’s having dirt on Leland is perfect, showing that the emperor is doing what she does best in this universe, too, and Pike and Leland’s friendship puts an interesting twist on the Starfleet/S31 rivalry that will obviously be playing out going forward. (It’s a rerun of the Tal Shiar/Romulan military conflict seen in The Next Generation‘s “Face of the Enemy” and the Central Command/Obsidian Order conflict seen throughout DS9, but those are totalitarian states where you expect that sort of thing.) And the entire Tilly-in-the-network subplot is just there so they can bring Culber back. You can see the strings, but since it’s righting a serious wrong from last season, I’m willing to accept it. Especially since it’s done in a way that shows our heroes being just that: heroes.
And we still haven’t seen Spock yet. Last weekend, the Shore Leave convention announced that Ethan Peck will be one of their headline guests in July, and yet we still haven’t seen him. Every single advertisement for Discovery season two has emphasized the presence of Spock on the show this year, the image on CBS.com for Discovery is a shot of Burnham and Spock, yet we still haven’t seen him. And next week it looks like we’re doing a sequel to “The Brightest Star” as Saru gets to bring his revelation from last week to his people, so probably still no Spock. We’re approaching the halfway point, guys, can we please get on with this?
All this, and I haven’t yet mentioned the return of Shazad Latif as Ash Tyler. He’s sticking around as the S31 liaison on Discovery, and it’s already clear that Pike doesn’t want him there given that he murdered a Starfleet officer. Stamets’s one scene with him is brief, and Stamets is too busy detailing his crazy-ass plan to rescue Tilly to do more than shoot him a pained look. But this is going to create some serious tension, as Stamets has to serve with the guy who killed his lover and, better still, the guy he killed gets to serve with him too! That won’t be awkward at all!
Latif is doing some fine work here, as this version of Tyler has different body language from either Voq or the old Tyler. He’s more wary, combining both his human half’s past as a security chief (and now as a black ops agent) and his Klingon past as a torch-bearer to be on edge and observing everything. It’s gonna be interesting to see how this plays out.
Keith R.A. DeCandido‘s latest novel is A Furnace Sealed, the debut of his new Bronx-based urban fantasy series “The Adventures of Bram Gold.” Ordering information and an excerpt can be found here.